Expert Commentary

Research chat: Nicco Mele on five ideas that animate the Internet

Readings and concepts that help clarify the Internet's underlying dynamics.


By Nicco Mele

Understanding the core ideas that guide how the Internet’s space and culture are constructed is crucial to interpreting an increasing number of events, from Barack Obama’s election and Wikileaks to the Arab Spring and the ongoing upheaval of major industries.

Though such events can seem shocking in their novelty and speed, the reality is that the underlying logic embedded in the Internet long ago helped set the table. Programmers, designers and theorists — who substantially came from the open-source movement — made decisions that are now having consequences, from the local to the global.

Ultimately, it’s important to see why the construction of the Internet is not necessarily friendly to the establishment.

For the hyper-connected, these core ideas are well known; they are taken for granted and are, as it were, the air the digital community breathes. But for many others, it is a matter of catching up. Digital norms and architecture need to be, in a sense, discovered for the first time. To be without this basic knowledge is to be subject to continuing blindsides and perpetual spin.

Below are five recommended readings that can help expose the bedrock of the digital world. Each examines key ideas and connects to wider notions. I have included some brief, informal remarks to set each reading in context and have linked to Wikipedia pages to clarify basic terms.


Reading: “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” Eric Raymond.

Relevance: This essay focuses on how the computer programming community in a networked world should operate. Raymond argues against one way of writing source code: the “cathedral” way, with a single architect or small elite planning and an army of serfs building the structure. In contrast, he advocates a “bazaar” model, whereby many people participate in a messier mutual system of trade. This system is often chaotic, but it’s also beautiful in its engaging liveliness. Software starts with “scratching your own itch” — solving problems that make your work more efficient. Raymond believes it’s good to then put this tentative software on the Internet where it may be improved by others, often perfect strangers — “release early and often,” he implores. This shared approach to work and problem-solving is embodied in the phrase, “Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow.” And embedded in this idea is that there are effectively no resource constraints to scaling up ideas.


Reading: The Search, John Battelle.

Relevance: This book about the central ideas of Google gives crucial insights into the development of the company’s Internet search innovations. Google’s world-changing algorithm PageRank took on the problem of trying to figure out users’ intentions — what they are really looking for. Google needed a way of establishing authority that was very hard to game. The fundamental way that Google went about this was to adopt the academic, scholarly model of peer citation. One of the most important measures that determines any Web page’s authority and importance, and hence its ranking, is the number of other in-bound links. The number of other websites, the terms that they link to you on, the frequency with which they link — all of these are a proxy for authority. And authority itself is thereby defined in a whole new, distributed way. Of course, it’s more complex and there are many other variables. But this is Google’s core genius, and it set the template and standard for how to assess importance on the Internet — and ultimately how informational power is constructed.


Reading:What Is Web 2.0?” Tim O’Reilly.

Relevance: In this essay, O’Reilly coins and articulates the idea of “Web 2.0,” a buzz term that is often now thrown around so loosely that it has lost its original meaning. The core concept is the “Web as platform.” Traditionally in computer science, a platform is a piece of software that controls a bunch of resources so they easily can be shared. Microsoft Windows, for example, controls your keyboard, speakers, battery, keyboard, screen, and much more. This means that Excel and Firefox and whatever other programs a computer is running don’t need to each manage a computer’s basic functions. The idea of “Web as platform” exports this technical computer science notion to the interactive Web world. This concept is made manifest in, for example, the way Wikipedia harnesses user-generated content; or, the way Netflix harnesses user ratings to recommend other movies to its audience. O’Reilly discusses how the Web can be used to take advantage of the sprawling, constantly growing digital world to accomplish larger goals, in business, social organizing and beyond.


Reading: The Wikipedia Revolution, Andrew Lih.

Relevance: This book looks at how Wikipedia has worked out a way to harness and organize the power of a vast, decentralized community. An astonishing percentage of the world uses Wikipedia on a regular basis; it may be the only media with truly global reach. The most important thing is Wikipedia’s governance structure, which provides a new model for the world. The organization has a community with norms and values that is working toward establishing an authoritative, neutral point of view on the sum total of human knowledge. But there is no easy or clean way to achieve this. Disputes need to be resolved, but often cannot be; “flame wars” break out over facts and accounts of events and people; there are a wide range of viewpoints. Wikipedia operates with the idea of asynchronous collaboration online, whereby a variety of people with differing views contribute across a wide range of time. (The digital media theorist Clay Shirky also has a lot of relevant insight on this sort of project, organized around his idea of “cognitive surplus.” His thesis is that small amount of free time spent by individuals on interactive projects — when spread out over a larger community — can result in the creation of things of enormous value.)


Reading: The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser.

Relevance: This is a relatively new book that contains a useful warning for all journalists, researchers or other information workers who use Google or other search products. Part of basic digital literacy now is understanding that search results are being customized and personalized to individuals’ browsing and search histories. (This also relates to how social networking applications are organizing your experience.) As Pariser notes, the amount of data now being created every 48 hours is roughly equal to all of the data in human history prior to 2003. This presents an enormous challenge. Google is trying to manage this torrent of information by serving up results that the company thinks may be better suited to what you are looking for. This new dynamic of personalization introduces a number of problems — for research, establishing authenticity, building movements, shaping public opinion. It’s an aspect of the digital world that everyone who cares about information should be watching, and this book provides a powerful lens through which to see this important trend.


Nicco Mele is an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.


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